What do you do when a tattoo becomes seriously infected, but you can’t afford a doctor’s visit?

This is what happened to a Grace Clinic patient we’ll call ‘James’.

James was a journeyman industrial painter working for a small business. After a family member had given him a tattoo in honor of his daughter, James noticed that his arm was becoming red and swollen. With no health insurance and no extra money for a doctor’s visit, James felt he had no choice but to put up with the infection, hoping it would get better with time.

Thankfully, James heard about Grace Clinic and made an appointment for free care. The diagnosis: a staph infection — which can turn deadly if the bacteria invades deeply into the body. James received a discount for an antibiotics prescription, and a followup visit showed that his arm had healed well.

What is Grace Clinic?

We are the Tri-Cities’ only free clinic and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We are located at 800 W. Canal Drive in Kennewick. We offer medical, urgent dental, and mental health care, as well as provide healthy food items, prescription assistance, and referrals for specialty care, all at no cost to patients.

We aren’t affiliated with a particular church, but we are a faith-based organization. We embrace principles such as compassion, dignity, and equity.

Who is eligible?

Patients must live in Benton or Franklin Counties or Burbank, have no health insurance (including no Medicaid or Medicare), and meet income guidelines, which are 200% of the federal poverty level. For example, a one-person household can make up to $27,180 annually to be eligible; a four-person household, up to $55,500.

We don’t ask about citizenship. All patient information is confidential, in accordance with HIPAA privacy laws.

Why don’t people have health insurance?

This may surprise you: More than 27,000 people in our community don’t have health insurance. Most of our patients work at lower-income jobs that don’t offer coverage, like restaurants, care facilities, farms, construction firms, and small businesses. Some are students. Many are caring for families. Many speak languages other than English.

Even with federal subsidies, these individuals can’t afford the premiums and out-of-pocket costs for health insurance. For them, Grace Clinic is literally their healthcare safety net. In fact, in a survey, more than half of our patients said that if Grace Clinic weren’t here, they would not go anywhere for care.

How can Grace Clinic offer free care?

I enjoy telling people that we don’t have a billing department, and seeing a look of surprise — and sometimes confusion — on their faces. They’re wondering how we can offer free healthcare, in addition to paying the ongoing expenses of a brick-and-mortar business that’s open five days per week.

Two reasons: Community support and volunteers.

We are funded by generous individuals, businesses, churches, and service organizations. We don’t receive government funding, except a couple of short-term grants we got during the pandemic.

Annually, about 250 volunteers donate their services, including medical, dental, mental health, and business professionals. Among our specialists are cardiologists, gynecologists, dermatologists, and an audiologist. These volunteers enjoy the Clinic’s caring, unhurried, harmonious environment — plus, no insurance company interactions!

We augment our provider pool through medical education partnerships with local hospitals, Washington State University, Columbia Basin College, and other academic institutions. This way, we can serve more patients while giving medical residents and students valuable experience with under-served populations.

What’s the Impact?

Grace Clinic celebrated its 100,000th patient visit this year. That represents 100,000 times a person has come through our doors to receive healthcare over 20 years.

A big part of our success has been our selfless and community-focused leadership. Our volunteer CEO, Mark Brault, was named 2022 Tri-Citian of the Year. Our Clinic Director, Avonte Jackson, received the 2022 ATHENA award from the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce for her leadership.

These things make me proud. But the best part of my job is hearing patients tell their stories.

I think of ‘Sofia’, a retail worker who suffered from an obsessive-compulsive disorder known as trichotillomania. This means obsessively pulling out your hair. Counselors at Grace Clinic helped Sofia develop coping skills and prescribed an affordable generic version of anti-anxiety medication. She also received medical help for a thyroid condition. To Sofia, Grace Clinic means peace of mind. “Now I can go to a doctor if I’m sick and not wait until it’s out of control and have to go to an ER,” she said.

Then there’s ‘Gabe’, a college graduate who found himself homeless in the Tri-Cities after the database specialist job for which he had moved cross-country didn’t materialize. At the Clinic, Gabe received treatment for painful gout in his feet and high blood pressure. He also got dental care. Counseling provided further encouragement. In a few months, Gabe was back on his feet again and was interviewing for jobs.

By helping people like James, Sofia, and Gabe stay healthy, we are literally helping people continue to work and care for their families. And that benefits our entire community.

Tumbleweird editor Sara Quinn and her dad, Dr. Kevin Taylor, are among those who have volunteered at Grace Clinic. But you don‘t have to be bilingual or a medical professional to make a difference! Find ways to help at gracecliniconline.org , and follow us on Instagram and Facebook.

Photos and stories used with permission. Patient names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Andrea McMakin is Communications Coordinator at Grace Clinic.